Ads for calorie-dense foods are everywhere. Television, billboards, radio and the Internet are saturated with them. You can’t even drive very far along most major roads without passing one of the larger fast food chains!

We’re so completely saturated with ads for burgers, soda, chips and sweets that we often don’t even think about them. They’ve just become part of the landscape, like trees and rocks.

New Research Shows: This is slowly killing us

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If new research is any indication, it’s time to become much more mindful of what’s around us.

A combination of experts on public health, nutrition and obesity have been forming a body of research over the last 20 years on what they call the “obesogenic environment” — cultures where external cues heavily influence people to choose calorie-dense foods that are high in refined sugars and saturated fats.

They’ve found a direct link between obesogenic environments and lifelong patterns of excessive caloric intake. And guess which culture is the biggest obesogenic environment of them all?

The ‘Murican Diet

No one is sure exactly when the term “obesogenic” was coined, but the roots of the concept can be traced as far back as Boyd Swinburn’s research into the dietary habits of Native American cultures in Arizona that began in the 1980s.[1]

Swinburn studied the Pima Indians, a culture that had an extremely high rate of diabetes. Prior to that point, it was widely thought that diabetes in native populations was caused by biological differences. Swinburn’s research instead indicated that these diabetes rates were caused not just by dietary change, but by societal factors that encouraged overconsumption.

Scientists had been putting the cart before the horse; the diabetes rates were caused by a corresponding tendency toward obesity, and that tendency toward obesity was caused by maladaptation to an abnormal environment.[2]

The Vicious Cycle

The problem doesn’t just affect specific populations, however, and it isn’t limited to America.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service has spent years researching this idea, as England has an overall obesity rate of about 40% for men and about 33% for women. They’ve concluded that the prime culprit is the widespread availability of cheap, energy-dense calories and a lack of public health policy to counter the trend.[3,4]

Even more recent research has clarified how dangerous this environment could really be for us. A study that was just published last month in the journal Appetite sketches out a link between environmental obesity cues and a vicious cycle that not only promotes obesity, but leads to cognitive decline as well!

The study found that rats fed a diet high in saturated fats and sugar progressively had trouble solving a discrimination task when deprived of food. The study designers theorize that a pattern of taking in these diets dense in unhealthy fats and empty calories begun early in life could not only lead to long-term obesity, but could interfere with the ability to learn.[5]

More Than Just Ads and Convenient Stores

Cultures that cycle and walk for transportation have lower obesity rates. Image courtesy of @dkbfpe

Cultures that cycle and walk for transportation have lower obesity rates. Image courtesy of @dkbfpe

Constant advertising and easy access to fast food restaurants and convenient stores that sell almost nothing but low-quality food are certainly central to the obesogenic culture, but other factors are in play as well.

Cars are ultimately not healthy compared to walking/cycling

One major factor is urban design. This is a particular problem in most United States cities, which have largely grown under the assumption that citizens will own cars.

Studies have found a correlation between lower body mass index in areas of Europe where walking and cycling are more primary modes of transportation, versus countries like the United States and Australia where vehicle ownership is more common.[6] Even public transit helps to some degree, as it usually involves more walking and carrying than driving between parking lots.

The low income issue

Living in low-income areas can also be dangerous to your health in a number of ways, but one of them is putting you at greater risk of obesity. One study actually found that this was the sole environmental factor that always contributed to obesogenic dietary behaviors.[7]

Staying Aware

Countering the obesogenic environment involves doing a lot of the things we’ve been talking about here in this space. Counting calories, keeping on top of your macronutrients, weighing food and sticking to a realistic exercise program all keep you focused on a quantifiable, concrete goal.

Knowing exactly what you’re putting in your body and what the effects are going to be is the key to countering the constant advertising and the convenience foods that are always within easy reach.

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